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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Stress Marathon

Q. Is there such a thing as a situational manic depressive? I am a paraproffesionals for Children's Mental Health. I function as an advocate and liaison for at risk families. I have been working on a project on my own to help stabilize families by teaming them in a co-housing situation with a "house director"--kind of a hybrid between a half way house and intentional community. The objective is to provide 24 hour intensive support.

I am way outside my area, but then there are no experts in what I am trying to create. It consumes my time to the point that I have noticed that my sleep patterns have been altered. I get up around 3 a.m. and start surfing the web for information.

I have been depressed about my own situation at home. I am one of my own best sources of information on the topic as our family is in financial and emotional despair much of the time. I understand that I am trying to fix my own life as I go along. But I feel that this self knowledge should not dissuade me from my higher purpose. The problem is that I become wrapped up in it to the point that I have no interest in other things.

I feel driven to help provide a positive working model for families. But this going it alone (and I feel that social services are part of the problem rather than the cure) is tough on me to the point that I am getting concerned about the depression. I do not feel that we are a hopeless bunch, far from it. But I do wonder if I am acting out my own feelings of despair in a fantasy sometimes. I want to stay on track and in good health. What do you think?

A. I think it's time to get some professional counseling for yourself. It sounds like you are in the midst of a 24-hour intensive stress marathon! While I applaud your idealism and commitment, your first priority needs to be your own health and well-being--otherwise, you won't be able to serve the very people you hope to help.

I'm not sure why you are asking about manic-depressive disorder, situational or otherwise--but I certainly can't rule out some kind of cyclical mood disorder, based on the limited information you have provided. That is the role of the mental health professional that would assess you. (For more information on bipolar/manic-depressive disorder, you can contact the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association, at 800-826-3632).

Perhaps you are experiencing what is sometimes termed "burnout". This generally refers to a syndrome of stress-related fatigue, mild depression, anxiety, irritability, impaired decision making, and low emotional resiliency. You may need to set some limits on your involvement in this project--or get some help to learn how to set these limits.

A book that may be of interest is "The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook", by Martha Davis et al. But this is no substitute for a professional evaluation. I realize that this may be a financial problem for you, and that your time is already at a premium. But I think that getting help for yourself would be an investment in your own well-being--and hence, in your ability to help others.

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May 2003

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